How much money should ministers make?
I was a part of a conference last week sponsored by the Association of Theological Schools on “Economic Challenges Facing Future Ministers,” where this question was raised by Daniel Aleshire, the CEO of ATS. Aleshire, always a compelling speaker, said that there is probably more agreement about the nature of the trinity than over how much those in religious vocations should be paid.
Aleshire’s comments came in the larger context of a conversation about theological student debt. I’ll come back to that topic in a bit, but want to say some things about ministerial compensation first.
There are problems on each end of the religious pay spectrum. One’s ability to serve is compromised both by making too little and by making too much. I’ve experienced people in ministry with deep resentment from being poorly paid, yet also learned the other day of a seminary president living in a $4 million home with a lifestyle described as “opulent.” That story made me cringe. Yes, this person has raised millions upon millions and brought all sorts of recognition to his school. His board of trustees is rewarding him with the most tangible form of currency they have. But is this good? Is it good for him?
The New Testament contains many warnings from Jesus about the acquisition of wealth. By world standards, every North American pastor is already rich. But I wonder about the souls of those who get rich by North American standards in the service of the one who said what he did about wealth, camels and the eyes of needles.
Rich pastors are more the exception than the rule, though. There are lots of underpaid pastors. Some are bi-vocational pastors, which has a nice sort of Priscilla-and-Aquila-New-Testament-tent-making ring to it until your pastor is unavailable for an emergency because she’s got to work her job at the mall.
“Part-time” is a magic economic concept. With benefits subtracted, a half-time position costs about a third of a full-time position. And part-time students generally can get through seminary without racking up much debt. Yet there is such pressure for admissions at schools it is hard to imagine any seminary advising someone, “You really can’t afford this. Get another job and go to school part-time for the next seven or eight years.”
Over the past twenty years a shift has happened in the amount of student debt people are accruing to attend seminary. The average in 1991 was less than $5000 per student, in 2011 it was around $40,000 per student (of students who borrowed to attend – there is still a significant number who do not borrow for theological education.)
If pastors made more money, the debt load students accrue to become pastors might be more defensible. Instead, there are pastors leaving ministry because they cannot afford it. It’s not unheard of for people to graduate from seminary with over $100,000 in student debt.
This is a complicated problem. At Western Theological Seminary we work extremely hard to ensure students pay a fraction of the total cost of their education. Yet we know that even if a student owes nothing for tuition they are able to borrow $20,000 a year for living expenses. You could go to seminary for three years, not pay a dime in tuition, and still be $60,000 in debt. Another complicating factor is that many students bring large amounts of undergraduate student debt to seminary with them. Should seminaries turn a potential student down because of the debt load the student already carries?
Whose responsibility is it to pay for theological education? Two generations ago, at least at my school, it was assumed that this was the denomination’s responsibility. In the recent past the burden shifted to the school and it became the seminary’s responsibility to do all it could to help students afford to attend. Some odd things have happened over the past decade. Philanthropic dollars for religion have decreased, endowments are flat in light of the Great Recession, and enrollment in seminaries has gone down. But more tuition dollars are coming in than ever before. Fewer students are producing more revenue, which means that the cost of financing theological education is more and more being born by students.
Other questions getting asked include: What is the value of an educated clergy? With commissioned pastor routes available in multiple denominations, are we beginning to see the end of a seminary-educated clergy? What is lost when pastors don’t go to seminary? Is the education received worth the spiraling cost of higher education?
I have more questions than answers this week. We’re grappling with all of this (and more) at Western. I’m interested in what you think.